Leaders in Action: A will to overcome obstacles
UND Junior Michelle Nguyen uses her experience to help other first-generation students
UND student Michelle Nguyen would one day like to be on business TV shows talking about the intersection of economics and political policy, a subject she believes she could help people better understand.
It’s not hard to imagine her in this role. When Nguyen discusses topics related to her double major in economics and political science and her minor in nonprofit leadership, she is confident, knowledgeable and engaging.
But her poise and outgoing personality belie the struggles of this first-generation college student from Eden Prairie, Minn., and her Vietnamese immigrant parents, Michael and Diana. She’s already putting the lessons of her experience to work as a mentor and as an advocate for other first-generation students.
“I believe that a lot of my empowerment, a lot of my confidence, was taught by seeing my parents do the things they do,” said Nguyen, a junior at UND’s Nistler College of Business & Public Administration. “Whatever it is that I do, I hope that I’m able to help my parents and recognize what they go through for me to be where I am. It would be a shame for me to not honor who they are.”
In addition to being a member of UND’s Hockey Cheer Team and working as a computer services assistant at the UND School of Law, Nguyen is a National Scholarship Peer Advisor, president of the Nonprofit Leadership Student Association at UND, a mentor for the UND Business Leadership Club and an active volunteer in the Grand Forks community.
During a recent campus event recognizing students who received national scholarship awards, Nguyen gave a speech in which she told of the challenges her parents endured as Vietnamese immigrants who worked long, hard hours to support their family. She related the physical, mental and emotional difficulties she faced while attending Eden Prairie schools and as a first-generation Asian American student at UND. She had no idea the impact her talk would have on her and everyone listening.
“I think I’m pretty mindful about reading a room,” she later related. “At the end of it, I was in tears, and other people were in tears.”
Among those in tears during Nguyen’s speech was Yee Han Chu, UND’s coordinator for academic support and fellowship opportunities, and one of several mentors Nguyen thanked for their roles in helping her earn a Scholarship America Dream Award.
“Michelle is what I would call a gifted leader,” Chu said. “These are individuals who can spot gaps in services. Here is this young woman, so early in life, already asking those questions of herself that we ask in our 40s or 50s. She’s already stepped up.”
Nguyen’s story goes all the way back to the Vietnam War, when her father grew up in a family with 16 brothers and sisters. To help support the family, he walked many miles each day to sell ice cream. He tried to leave Vietnam by boat, but was captured and put in a re-education camp, where he suffered frequent beatings.
He eventually made his way to the Philippines and later to the U.S. under the sponsorship of a church in Minnesota. He saved enough money to return to Vietnam and bring his wife and their two sons to America.
Although Nguyen and her younger brother were born in the U.S., they grew up in Eden Prairie speaking only Vietnamese at home.
“When I went to school, it was like, ‘Why don’t these kids speak Vietnamese?’” she recalled.
Until she reached the fifth grade, Nguyen was embarrassed when she had to leave class every day to take a course on English as a second language. Even after she learned English, she continued to struggle with reading comprehension problems. None of that stopped her from taking up figure skating, getting involved in clubs, holding a job and being elected Student Council president of Eden Prairie High School.
When Nguyen was active in competitive figure skating, her family couldn’t afford the dresses that skaters wear, as these typically cost hundreds of dollars apiece. Instead, her mother bought a sewing machine and some dress patterns, and taught herself to sew the elaborate outfits.
“It was because we couldn’t afford those fancy dresses that my mom had to learn something she didn’t know anything about,” Nguyen said. “I watched my mom figure things out and make things work with the resources we had. This inspired me to work hard and apply myself to obstacles in my life.”
Then when she was a junior in high school practicing her skating, Nguyen fell and hurt her back. At first, it didn’t seem serious.
But “the next morning when I woke up, I couldn’t feel from my hips down to my toes; I was temporarily paralyzed,” she said. “I was in my bed screaming, ‘Dad! Mom! I can’t feel my legs! I can’t skate!’ My mom looked at me and said, ‘You can’t walk!’”
The injury forced Nguyen to give up her dream of being a professional figure skater. But she channeled her energy into other efforts, such as successfully managing the campaign of one of her teachers who ran for and won a seat in the Minnesota Legislature.
Skating the dream
Then at UND, Nguyen missed skating so much that at a friend’s urging, she decided to try out for the University’s Hockey Cheer Team, which skates at home games. It was a challenge because she’d never been a cheerleader.
“The coaches and the panel knew I was terrified,” she said. “But on the ice, I was, ‘Whoa! I got this!’ It was muscle memory. I hadn’t practiced in years, and it came back to me. It was like a dream come true. Now I get to skate at Ralph Engelstad Arena, a feeling that can’t be beat. Every single time I step onto the ice, I have chills. I’m like a little kid at Disney World.”
But there were other, more serious challenges at UND. The toughest was financial: Back at home, an injury prevented Nguyen’s father from working. That meant money trouble for the family, and that, in turn, meant Nguyen might have to move back home.
“I was just going to drop out of school and go work with my parents,” Nguyen said. “I didn’t know what I else I could do.”
She crisscrossed the campus, meeting with anyone she thought might help her find the financial assistance she needed to continue her education. The stress and anxiety this generated began to wear on her. She remembered late-night phone calls with her parents, trying to find a way to stay at UND.
A job that’s not this
Michelle’s mother wanted her daughter to have a better life than her parents, both of whom worked as janitors. She remembers her mother’s advice:
“My mom said, ‘Michelle, finish school so you can get a job that’s not this,’” she said. “We had nickels we were rubbing together. That’s what our family was doing.”
Nguyen’s perseverance led to a meeting with Chu, who began helping her search for national scholarships.
“Never did I think that I’d be qualified for a national scholarship,” Nguyen said. “I thought they were for people with a 4.0 grade point averages from Stanford or Harvard or Yale. I didn’t see that in myself, but Yee Han saw it in me.”
About a week after their first meeting, Nguyen received an email from Chu with a link to an application from Scholarship America, an organization that’s donated $4.2 billion to students since its establishment in 1958. The scholarship, known as the Dream Award, is for students who have overcome adversity in pursuit of their goals.
“To be very honest, when I gave Michelle that link, I wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it,” Chu said. “She had to show initiative. She asked for help when she needed it, and we were here for her — the whole campus was here for her.”
Nguyen wasn’t sure what she’d do, either.
“I opened the application, and when it asked about my special circumstances, I just wanted to write, ‘Hey, I’m tired!’” she laughed. “I didn’t know there were people out there willing to believe in me.”
Earning national scholarships
At the time, what Nguyen didn’t realize was that more than 7,000 students had applied for the Dream Award scholarship. She was one of 22 who received the $10,000-a-year renewable scholarship, a sum that increases each year. Last week, she was awarded a second national scholarship from the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Program funded by the U.S. Department of Education. It helps prepare students planning to complete a Ph.D. by defining goals, engaging in research and developing faculty mentor relationships.
The experience has changed her perspective on how she intends to live her life.
“I want to be a role model for first-generation students, the families of refugees and immigrants, and anyone who aspires to receive an education,” she said. “I don’t want to just be an advocate; I want to be a person who actually does something about it.”
Nguyen not only plans to graduate next year, but will also pursue a Ph.D. in economics, teaching the subject she loves and helping others learn about national scholarship opportunities. She’s twice been accepted to the London School of Economics summer program and continues to work with Chu in searching for scholarships that will enable her to pursue her dream of attending the school overseas.
She credits the inspiration provided by her parents and her mentors at UND with helping her to persevere and recognize the value of her education.
“I knew I didn’t have much, and I knew that my parents sacrificed so much,” Nguyen said. “If there was one thing I had going for me, it was my education. Education is the most powerful tool that we can ever have; it’s the strongest thing I have going for me. That’s what kept me going.”